By Nicola Bullard
In the absence of ideas, the IMF and the World Bank are trying to re-create themselves as the white knights leading the charge against poverty. Take, for example, the debate between the IMF’s Michael Bell and Michael Walt on from the World Bank (in the blue corner) and Walden Bello (Focus on the Global South) and Njoki Njehu (Fifty Years is Enough) in the red corner.
With an audience of more than 500, and hundreds more listening over the PA system, the debate started badly when the speakers were invited to tell us "how I got to be here." Njoki Njehu and Michael Bell responded politely if not fulsomely and Walden Bello disregarded the instructions altogether, wasting no time launching his attack on the Fund and the Bank. Only Michael Walton, director of the Bank’s poverty reduction group, warmed to the task, talking about his ‘lower middle class’ family, his mother’s charitable works and his sister’s community development activities. "You see," was the message, "I am just like you." And it went downhill from there.

In the two-hour ‘debate’ (which only occasionally rose above body temperature) the enthusiastic and very polite audience asked sensible questions on everything from debt relief to the Asian crisis, from accountability to structural adjustment. But the answers from the IMF and World Bank representatives were rambling and unconvincing, barely lifting above the rhetorical bog of ‘poverty alleviation.’ We were left with an impression that the se institutions have no ideas and no solutions and that their paradigm is in disarray. Gone is the hard-edged evangelical drive of former years when macroeconomic stability and growth were all that mattered, and poverty w as someone else’s problem. Mr Bell, obviously nostalgic for the pre-Asia crisis days when life was simple, admitted "the Fund doesn’t have the expertise to go into all the different aspects of development."

Obviously charged with showing the Bank’s ‘human’ face, Mr Walton was even upbeat about the protests, saying that he detected "a new energy" and that the debate was bringing into the public arena "issues that he cares abo ut." He admitted that the World Bank has "absolutely made mistakes. We have lent to countries we should not have, and the development paradigm is incomplete." And Mr Walton should know: his experience in the Bank includ es Indonesia (where the bank has admitted 30% ‘leakage’ on its projects) and Zimbabwe (where the current turmoil is at least partly explained by the complicity between national elites and the international financial insti tutions).

Mr Bell, on the other hand, simply seemed bewildered as if wondering what all this talk about poverty had to do with the IMF.

‘God is on our side’ The official reaction to the street protests was the equivalent of "While you lot are out there on the streets causing trouble, we are in here (on a Sunday, what’s more) doing the serious work of alleviating poverty, figh ting AIDS and reducing debt."

Of course, it would be churlish to point out that poverty is also a product of the neo-liberal ideology which lurks – unexamined and unquestioned — behind the rhetorical smokescreen of poverty alleviation. And it would a lso be cheap to report a UN Aids consultant’s reaction to the Bank’s newfound interest in AIDS "At last. It’s only fifteen years too late." Or even to set the record straight on debt by noting that not one single country has become eligible for debt reduction under the Cologne Debt Initiative (HIPC 2). Uganda was almost over the hurdle, but then President Museveni went out and bought a brand new plane, which upset everyone no end. Whether or not the President should have a top-of-the-range jet is not the issue here (and in any case one would have thought that this is a matter for the people of Uganda to debate rather than the IMF Board). The issue is that Uganda’s graduation has been postponed because the IMF and the World Bank changed the rules mid-game using arbitrary non-negotiated conditions as a way of raising the bar higher and higher. And Uganda was their star stud ent! As Jeffrey Sachs accurately observed on another occasion "These institutions are not interested in debt cancellation, they want to control these economies."

But while the post-Cold War "free market equals democracy" bravado has been replaced with a Saul-like conversion to "poverty alleviation as the work of God" (even Mr Wolfensohn trudges off to the office every day to do "G od’s work’) the ideology and power that drive the agenda (that is, corporate capitalism and the US Treasury) are still firmly in place.

The public protests and even the attacks from their own class (the Meltzer Committee Report and Joseph Stiglitz’s cathartic outpouring on the IMF) should have precipitated a moral and intellectual crisis, but these instit utions simply do not have the humility, the impetus, or the ideas to change. UK Chancellor Gordon Brown exemplified this problem with his response to a journalist’s question about the impact of the protests on the Interna tional Monetary and Financial Committee meeting: "We didn’t hear the protests and the meeting went on as normal."

* Nicola Bullard is deputy director of Focus on the Global South